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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Long Shadow - Chapter 10. The Day We Celebrate
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The Long Shadow - Chapter 10. The Day We Celebrate Post by :patato Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :July 2011 Read :1820

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The Long Shadow - Chapter 10. The Day We Celebrate

CHAPTER X. The Day We Celebrate

The days that followed were to Billy much like a delicious dream. Sometimes he stopped short and wondered uneasily if he would wake up pretty soon to find that he was still an exile from the Double-Crank, wandering with Dill over the country in search of a location. Sometimes he laughed aloud unexpectedly, and said, "Hell!" in a chuckling undertone when came fresh realization of the miracle. But mostly he was an exceedingly busy young man, with hands and brain too full of the stress of business to do much wondering.

They were in possession of the Double-Crank, now--he in full charge, walking the path which his own feet, when he was merely a "forty-dollar puncher," had helped wear deep to the stable and corrals; giving orders where he had been wont to receive them; riding horses which he had long completed, but which had heretofore been kept sacred to the use of Jawbreaker and old Brown himself; eating and sleeping in the house with Dill instead of making one of the crowd in the bunk-house; ordering the coming and going of the round-up crew and tasting to the full the joys--and the sorrows--of being "head push" where he had for long been content to serve. Truly, the world had changed amazingly for one Charming Billy Boyle.

Most of the men he had kept on, for he liked them well and they had faith to believe that success would not spoil him. The Pilgrim he had promised himself the pleasure of firing bodily off the ranch within an hour of his first taking control--but the Pilgrim had not waited. He had left the ranch with the Old Man and where he had gone did not concern Billy at the time. For there was the shipment of young stock from the South to meet and drive up to the home range, and there was the calf round-up to start on time, and after all the red tape of buying the outfit and turning over the stock had been properly wound up, time was precious in the extreme through May and June and well into July.

But habit is strong upon a man even after the conditions which bred the habit have utterly changed. One privilege had been always kept inviolate at the Double-Crank, until it had come to be looked upon as an inalienable right. The Glorious Fourth had been celebrated, come rain, come shine. Usually the celebration was so generous that it did not stop at midnight; anywhere within a week was considered permissible, a gradual tapering off--not to say sobering up--being the custom with the more hilarious souls.

When Dill with much solemnity tore off June from the calendar in the dining room--the calendar with Custer's Last Charge rioting redly above the dates--Billy, home for a day from the roundup, realized suddenly that time was on the high lope; at least, that is how he put it to Dill.

"Say, Dilly, we sure got to jar loose from getting rich long enough to take in that picnic over to Bluebell Grove. Didn't know there was a picnic or a Bluebell Grove? Well now, there is. Over on Horned-Toad Creek--nice, pretty name to go with the grove, ain't it?--they've got a patch uh shade big over as my hat. Right back up on the hill is the schoolhouse where they do their dancing, and they've got a table or two and a swing for the kids to fall outa--and they call it Bluebell Grove because yuh never saw a bluebell within ten mile uh the place. That's where the general round-up for the Fourth is pulled off this year--so Jim Bleeker was telling me this morning. We sure got to be present, Dilly."

"I'm afraid I'm not the sort of man to shine in society, William," dissented the other modestly. "You can go, and--"

"Don't yuh never _dance_?" Billy eyed him speculatively. A man under fifty--and Dill might be anywhere between thirty and forty--who had two sound legs and yet did not dance!

"Oh, I used to, after a fashion. But my feet are so far off that I find communication with them necessarily slow, and they have a habit of embarking in wild ventures of their own. I do not believe they are really popular with the feminine element, William. And so I'd rather--"

"Aw, you'll have to go and try it a whirl, anyhow. We ain't any of us experts. Yuh see, the boys have been accustomed to having the wheels of industry stop revolving on the Fourth, and turning kinda wobbly for four or five days after. I don't feel like trying to break 'em in to keep on working--do you?"

"To use your own term," said Dill, suddenly reckless of his diction, "you're sure the doctor."

"Well, then, the proper dope for this case is, all hands show up at the picnic." He picked up his hat from the floor, slapped it twice against his leg to remove the dust, pinched the crown into four dents, set it upon his head at a jaunty angle and went out, singing softly:

"She's a young thing, and cannot leave her mother."

Dill, looking after him, puckered his face into what passed with him for a smile. "I wonder now," he meditated aloud, "if William is not thinking of some particular young lady who--er--who 'cannot leave her mother'." If he had only known it, William was; he was also wondering whether she would be at the picnic. And if she were at the picnic, would she remember him? He had only seen her that one night--and to him it seemed a very long while ago. He thought, however, that he might be able to recall himself to her mind--supposing she had forgotten. It was a long time ago, he kept reminding himself, and the light was poor and he hadn't shaved for a week--he had always afterward realized that with much mental discomfort--and he really did look a lot different when he had on his "war-togs," by which he meant his best clothes. He wouldn't blame her at all if she passed him up for a stranger, just at first. A great deal more he thought on the same subject, and quite as foolishly.

Because of much thinking on the subject, when he and Dill rode down the trail which much recent passing had made unusually dusty, with the hot sunlight of the Fourth making the air quiver palpably around them; with the cloudless blue arching hotly over their heads and with the four by six cotton flag flying an involuntary signal of distress--on account of its being hastily raised bottom-side-up and left that way--and beckoning them from the little clump of shade below, the heart of Charming Billy Boyle beat unsteadily under the left pocket of his soft, cream-colored silk shirt, and the cheeks of him glowed red under the coppery tan. Dill was not the sort of man who loves fast riding and they ambled along quite decorously--"like we was headed for prayer-meeting with a singing-book under each elbow," thought Billy, secretly resentful of the pace.

"I reckon there'll be quite a crowd," he remarked wistfully. "I see a good many horses staked out already."

Dill nodded absently, and Billy took to singing his pet ditty; one must do something when one is covering the last mile of a journey toward a place full of all sorts of delightful possibilities--and covering that mile at a shambling trot which is truly maddening.


"She can make a punkin pie quick's a cat can wink her eye,
She's a young thing, and cannot leave her mother!"


"But, of course," observed Mr. Dill quite unexpectedly, "you know, William, time will remedy that drawback."

Billy started, looked suspiciously at the other, grew rather red and shut up like a clam. He did more; he put the spurs to his horse and speedily hid himself in a dust-cloud, so that Dill, dutifully keeping pace with him, made a rather spectacular arrival whether he would or no.

Charming Billy, his hat carefully dimpled, his blue tie fastidiously knotted and pierced with the Klondyke nugget-pin which was his only ornament, wandered hastily through the assembled groups and slapped viciously at mosquitoes. Twice he shied at a flutter of woman-garments, retreated to a respectable distance and reconnoitred with a fine air of indifference, to find that the flutter accompanied the movements of some girl for whom he cared not at all.

In his nostrils was the indefinable, unmistakable picnic odor--the odor of crushed grasses and damp leaf-mould stirred by the passing of many feet, the mingling of cheap perfumes and starched muslin and iced lemonade and sandwiches; in his ears the jumble of laughter and of holiday speech, the squealing of children in a mob around the swing, the protesting squeak of the ropes as they swung high, the snorting of horses tied just outside the enchanted ground. And through the tree-tops he could glimpse the range-land lying asleep in the hot sunlight, unchanged, uncaring, with the wild range-cattle feeding leisurely upon the slopes and lifting heads occasionally to snuff suspiciously the unwonted sounds and smells that drifted up to them on vagrant breezes.

He introduced Dill to four or five men whom he thought might be congenial, left him talking solemnly with a man who at some half-forgotten period had come from Michigan, and wandered aimlessly on through the grove. Fellows there were in plenty whom he knew, but he passed them with a brief word or two. Truth to tell, for the most part they were otherwise occupied and had no time for him.

He loitered over to the swing, saw that the enthusiasts who were making so much noise were all youngsters under fifteen or so and that they hailed his coming with a joy tinged with self-interest. He rose to the bait of one dark-eyed miss who had her hair done in two braids crossed and tied close to her head with red-white-and-blue ribbon, and who smiled alluringly and somewhat toothlessly and remarked that she liked to go 'way, '_way up till it most turned over, and that it didn't scare her a bit. He swung her almost into hysterics and straightway found himself exceedingly popular with other braided-and-tied young misses. Charming Billy never could tell afterward how long or how many he swung 'way, '_way up; he knew that he pushed and pushed until his arms ached and the hair on his forehead became unpleasantly damp under his hat.

"That'll just about have to do yuh, kids," he rebelled suddenly and left them, anxiously patting his hair and generally resettling himself as he went. Once more in a dispirited fashion he threaded the crowd, which had grown somewhat larger, side-stepped a group which called after him, and went on down to the creek.

"I'm about the limit, I guess," he told himself irritably. "Why the dickens didn't I have the sense and nerve to ride over and ask her straight out if she was coming? I coulda drove her over, maybe--if she'd come with me. I coulda took the bay team and top-buggy, and done the thing right. I coulda--hell, there's a _heap uh things I coulda done that would uh been a lot more wise than what I did do! Maybe she ain't coming at all, and--"

On the heels of that he saw a spring-wagon, come rattling down the trail across the creek. There were two seats full, and two parasols were bobbing seductively, and one of them was blue. "I'll bet a dollar that's them now," murmured Billy, and once more felt anxiously of his hair where it had gone limp under his hat. "Darned kids--they'd uh kept me there till I looked like I'd been wrassling calves half a day," went with the patting. He turned and went briskly through an empty and untrampled part of the grove to the place where the wagon would be most likely to stop. "I'm sure going to make good to-day or--" And a little farther--"What if it ain't _them_?"

Speedily he discovered that it was "them," and at the same time he discovered something else which pleased him not at all. Dressed with much care, so that even Billy must reluctantly own him good-looking enough, and riding so close to the blue parasol that his horse barely escaped grazing a wheel, was the Pilgrim. He glared at Billy in unfriendly fashion and would have shut him off completely from approach to the wagon; but a shining milk can, left carelessly by a bush, caught the eye of his horse, and after that the Pilgrim was very busy riding erratically in circles and trying to keep in touch with his saddle.

Billy, grown surprisingly bold, went straight to where the blue parasol was being closed with dainty deliberation. "A little more, and you'd have been late for dinner," he announced, smiling up at her, and held out his eager arms. Diplomacy, perhaps, should have urged him to assist the other lady first--but Billy Boyle was quite too direct to be diplomatic and besides, the other lady was on the opposite side from him.

Miss Bridger may have been surprised, and she may or may not have been pleased; Billy could only guess at her emotions--granting she felt any. But she smiled down at him and permitted the arms to receive her, and she also permitted--though with some hesitation--Billy to lead her straight away from the wagon and its occupants and from the gyrating Pilgrim to the deep delights of the grove.

"Mr. Walland is a good rider, don't you think?" murmured Miss Bridger, gazing over her shoulder.

"He's a bird," said Billy evenly, and was polite enough not to mention what kind of bird. He was wondering what on earth had brought those two together and why, after that night, Miss Bridger should be friendly with the Pilgrim; but of these things he said nothing, though he did find a good deal to say upon pleasanter subjects.

So far as any one knew, Charming Billy Boyle, while he had done many things, had never before walked boldly into a picnic crowd carrying a blue parasol as if it were a rifle and keeping step as best he might over the humps and hollows of the grove with a young woman. Many there were who turned and looked again--and these were the men who knew him best. As for Billy, his whole attitude was one of determination; he was not particularly lover-like--had he wanted to be, he would not have known how. He was resolved to make the most of his opportunities, because they were likely to be few and because he had an instinct that he should know the girl better--he had even dreamed foolishly, once or twice, of some day marrying her. But to clinch all, he had no notion of letting the Pilgrim offend her by his presence.

So he somehow got her wedged between two fat women at one of the tables, and stood behind and passed things impartially and ate ham sandwiches and other indigestibles during the intervals. He had the satisfaction of seeing the Pilgrim come within ten feet of them, hover there scowling for a minute or two and then retreat. "He ain't forgot the licking I gave him," thought Billy vaingloriously, and hid a smile in the delectable softness of a wedge of cake with some kind of creamy filling.

"_I made that cake," announced Miss Bridger over her shoulder when she saw what he was eating. "Do you like it as well as--chicken stew?"

Whereupon Billy murmured incoherently and wished the two fat women ten miles away. He had not dared--he would never have dared--refer to that night, or mention chicken stew or prune pies or even dried apricots in her presence; but with her own hand she had brushed aside the veil of constraint that had hung between them.

"I wish I'd thought to bring a prune pie," he told her daringly, in his eagerness half strangling over a crumb of cake.

"Nobody wants prune pie at a picnic," declared one of the fat women sententiously. "You might as well bring fried bacon and done with it."

"Picnics," added the other and fatter woman, "iss for getting somet'ings t' eat yuh don'd haff every day at home." To point the moral she reached for a plate of fluted and iced molasses cakes.

"I _love prune pies," asserted Miss Bridger, and laughed at the snorts which came from either side.

Billy felt himself four inches taller just then. "Give me stewed prairie-chicken," he stooped to murmur in her ear--or, to be exact, in the blue bow on her hat.

"Ach, you folks didn'd ought to come to a picnic!" grunted the fatter woman in disgust.

The two who had the secret between them laughed confidentially, and Miss Bridger even turned her head away around so that their eyes could meet and emphasize the joke.

Billy looked down at the big, blue bow and at the soft, blue ruffly stuff on her shoulders--stuff that was just thin enough so that one caught elusive suggestions of the soft, pinky flesh beneath--and wondered vaguely why he had never noticed the beating in his throat before--and what would happen if he reached around and tilted back her chin and--"Thunder! I guess I've sure got 'em, all right!" he brought himself up angrily, and refrained from carrying the subject farther.

It was rumored that the dancing would shortly begin in the schoolhouse up the hill, and Billy realized suddenly with some compunction that he had forgotten all about Dill. "I want to introduce my new boss to yuh, Miss Bridger," he said when they had left the table and she was smoothing down the ruffly blue stuff in an adorably feminine way. "He isn't much just to look at, but he's the whitest man I ever knew. You wait here a minute and I'll go find him"--which was a foolish thing for him to do, as he afterward found out.

For when he had hunted the whole length of the grove, he found Dill standing like a blasted pine tree in the middle of a circle of men--men who were married, and so were not wholly taken up with the feminine element--and he was discoursing to them earnestly and grammatically upon the capitalistic tendencies of modern politics. Billy stood and listened long enough to see that there was no hope of weaning his interest immediately, and then went back to where he had left Miss Bridger. She was not there. He looked through the nearest groups, approached one of the fat women, who was industriously sorting the remains of the feast and depositing the largest and most attractive pieces of cake in her own basket, and made bold to inquire if she knew where Miss Bridger had gone.

"Gone home after some prune pie, I guess maybe," she retorted quellingly, and Billy asked no farther.

Later he caught sight of a blue flutter in the swing; investigated and saw that it was Miss Bridger, and that the Pilgrim, smiling and with his hat set jauntily back on his head, was pushing the swing. They did not catch sight of Billy for he did not linger there. He turned short around, walked purposefully out to the edge of the grove where his horse was feeding at the end of his rope, picked up the rope and led the horse over to where his saddle lay on its side, the neatly folded saddle-blanket laid across it. "Darn it, stand still!" he growled unjustly, when the horse merely took the liberty of switching a fly off his rump. Billy picked up the blanket, shook the wrinkles out mechanically, held it before him ready to lay across the waiting back of Barney; shook it again, hesitated and threw it violently back upon the saddle.

"Go on off--I don't want nothing of yuh," he admonished the horse, which turned and looked at him inquiringly. "I ain't through yet--I got another chip to put up." He made him a cigarette, lighted it and strolled nonchalantly back to the grove.

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